House debates

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Matters of Public Importance

National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2018, National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2018; Second Reading

5:24 pm

Photo of Cathy O'TooleCathy O'Toole (Herbert, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am proud to stand in this place today to support the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2018, even though I will raise some areas of concern. I am in awe of the people who came forward and gave evidence during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which was a legacy of the Gillard Labor government. Their courage has been nothing short of exceptional, especially when giving evidence was harrowing and very distressing as one is required to relive horrendous experiences. I also have huge respect for the commissioners who sat and listened to extremely distressing evidence from hurt and damaged people for over 444 days, and I thank them for their tireless commitment over five years so that we could see justice done.

I'm going to start my speech with the details of a woman who I have known for nearly 40 years. Sadly, she has passed on now. I will not reveal her identity out of respect for her privacy. Can you imagine growing up in a neglectful family and being taken away by children services on a number of occasions for varying periods of time and put into an institution, separated from your siblings because the boys went to boys' homes and the girls went to girls' homes? Can you imagine not being given the opportunity for an education that you so desperately craved? Can you imagine the only reason that your mother takes you from the home at age 14 is to put you to work and to take your income? Can you imagine, as you get older, being so fearful of going into an aged care facility due to what you remember from being in an institution? Can you imagine what it must be like to carry the secret of sexual abuse to your deathbed for nearly 86 years, because you could not tell a soul? Can you imagine lying on your deathbed and finally telling someone that you were sexually abused as a child in an institution, a place where you were meant to be protected? I cannot imagine living with that secret for nearly 86 years.

Maybe it was because you did not think anyone would care, because you did not think you would be believed, because you were ashamed or because of all of those reasons. I am sure that there are many people out there who have similar experiences and still have not told a soul. I say to those people: I believe you, this parliament believes you and, thanks to the royal commission, others will believe you as well. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has opened the door for people who have lived with this trauma to speak out because, at last, they will be believed. The commission held 57 public hearings, as I said, over 444 days; heard evidence from 1,300 witnesses and also held almost 8,000 private sessions where the commissioners listened to harrowing personal accounts.

It was Labor who was the first to announce support for a national redress scheme when the royal commission released its interim report in 2015. The LNP government did not commit to the redress scheme until 2016. The commissioners outlined a clear vision for a national redress scheme in the final report, Redress and civil litigation, in 2015 and the recommendations were not made lightly. It is for this reason that Labor believes that these recommendations should be implemented faithfully and as much as is humanly possible. Labor thanks the thousands of courageous survivors who shared their stories with the royal commission, as it is because of their bravery that we are discussing a national redress scheme in this place today. Survivors of child sexual abuse have been waiting their whole lives for redress for the horrific crimes that were perpetrated against them as children. For too long now, society has turned a blind eye to their daily struggle and that is nothing short of an immense shame.

However, Labor has a number of concerns with the legislation as it is currently drafted. Labor believes that it is critical that the national redress scheme provides survivors with a genuine opportunity to access justice and that it takes into account and caters for the unique needs of individual survivors. We have referred these bills to a Senate inquiry so that the community can be consulted on the points of difference in these bills and the earlier Commonwealth legislation. In light of the proposed start date of 1 July 2018, this inquiry is due to report before the Senate next sits so that the inquiry should not delay the commencement of the scheme. As a gesture of good faith in our ongoing discussions with the government to resolve Labor's concerns and to acknowledge our longstanding commitment to the establishment of a national redress scheme, Labor will support the bills in this House.

These bills establish a redress scheme that will be managed by the Secretary of the Department of Social Services as the scheme operator. The scheme will provide three elements of redress, with applicants able to receive all or just some of the elements. The elements of redress under the scheme are: a monetary payment, access to counselling and psychological services, and the opportunity to receive an apology from a representative of the institution responsible for the abuse. Those applicants who accept an offer will be required to sign a deed of release, waiving their civil rights against the responsible institution. Applicants will be provided with access to support services and legal services throughout their interactions with the redress scheme, and they will also receive financial advice. To be eligible to receive redress, applicants must have suffered sexual abuse as a child within the scope of the scheme and before the scheme start date.

Labor is concerned about a number of elements of the proposed scheme. Labor believes that we need to make sure that there are enough support services for all survivors who are considering making an application for redress, regardless of where they live or what language they speak, and that attention must be paid to cultural competency.

It is imperative that survivors have sufficient time to decide whether or not to accept an offer of redress. This bill gives applicants only six months to make this decision; however, the royal commission recommended a year. It is important that survivors have sufficient time to consider their decision because they are permitted only one application to the scheme and, for many, this will be an emotional and overwhelming process that should not be rushed.

This bill places an upper limit of $150,000 on the amount of redress that would be payable to any one survivor, but the royal commission recommended a maximum payment of $200,000, a minimum payment of $10,000 and an average payment of $65,000. Accepting an offer will also mean that the survivor will sign away any rights to pursue a claim for compensation through litigation, and that is why the amount of redress under the scheme is critical and it is absolutely essential that sufficient time be allowed to make a decision.

The bill also limits eligibility to the redress scheme to people who are living in Australia or who are Australian citizens. We know that horrific abuse has occurred in institutions that cared for child migrants, and we also know that abuse of children has occurred in immigration detention. We are rightly concerned that these people will not be able to access redress if they have returned to their country of birth. Labor calls on the government to confirm that provision will be made for these groups of survivors to access national redress.

Labor is very concerned that counselling provided to survivors through the redress scheme will not be adequate. The royal commission recommended that recipients of redress be able to access counselling for the rest of their life, but this bill only provides access to state-provided services for the length of the scheme or a payment of up to $5,000 to be put towards counselling. These arrangements are woefully inadequate, and Labor calls on the government to give assurances that this will be addressed. Having worked in the mental health sector for 15 years, I can assure you that, when people have been traumatised to the extent of what these people have suffered, that is simply not enough money or time.

Survivors often consider that the government is responsible for their abuse, and they do not wish to use state or institution-run services. This must be taken into account.

Survivors who are granted redress late in the life of the scheme could also be disadvantaged because they will not be able to access services for the same length of time as survivors who are granted redress early in the life of the scheme. This must also be taken into account in future reviews. The $5,000 payment will not provide adequate access to psychological counselling, as I mentioned, because, at the average rate of $150 an hour for counselling, this equates to a mere 33.3 hours of counselling, and that is simply not sufficient and needs urgent attention.

The government seeks to place restrictions on survivors who themselves have a criminal history from accessing the redress scheme. This is deeply unfair. I have worked in an area where I have come across people who have been incarcerated with significant mental health issues and who had been abused as children. They have found themselves in circumstances that are completely unacceptable as they have gone into their teenage years and into adulthood and those have led them to incarceration. Why should they be punished for something that happened to them as children? It's just not fair.

The bill requires that those who have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment for five years or more have special permission from the scheme operator to access the scheme. This rule ignores strong evidence, as I have said, showing that people with a history of childhood abuse and trauma are more likely to be incarcerated later in life. The first Senate inquiry was inundated with evidence from a variety of witnesses and submitters that this rule is cruel and is likely to increase recidivism.

Labor believes that this policy should be changed. Labor recognises that establishing a national redress scheme is a complex task, and it is very encouraging to see that Victoria, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory and Queensland have publicly announced that had they will participate in the scheme. We understand that other jurisdictions are working with the government, and we would want to see universal sign-up to the scheme as soon as humanly possible.

For justice to be truly done, the redress scheme must be national. Labor calls on all states and territories, churches, charities and other institutions to opt into the scheme. We must work together to right the wrongs of years gone by and ensure that these events can and will never be repeated. It is incumbent on all of us in this parliament to work together on further improvement to ensure is that we get the best possible redress scheme for survivors.

I want to make it clear today that a Shorten Labor government will seek to work with the states towards addressing the issues of concern that we have identified. Once we've got the agreement in place—once all states, churches and other institutions have signed up to an agreement—I believe that there may be an opportunity in the future for us to build on this start and do more. I would certainly hope that those people in the situation of living with the dreadful secret that the woman who I mentioned earlier in my speech lived with for 86 years, and felt she could only mention on her deathbed, never, ever happens to another person.


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